How to keep a depression diary, and why that's been important for my mental health
It’s no secret that I have depression. It’s part of who I am and I’ve accepted that and learnt to deal with it. Like most people with depression, I have periods of “normality”, when you wouldn’t know that my brain has a chemical imbalance. But I also have the really dark times, where I can’t get off the couch for weeks, and my brain lies to me about my worth and relationships. Through all of these changes, I keep a depression diary. It’s evolved through the years, but has become a vital tool to getting me through each day.
The reality is, there’s not much difference between a depression diary and most other kinds of diaries. A bullet journal, mindfulness log or even just a lined notebook would all do just as well. The benefit comes from daily (or near daily) use, and the mindset that this time creates.
The first Depression Diary
I first started keeping a depression diary in 2013, well before I was formally diagnosed. I was showing classic symptoms of depression, but refusing help. To try and pull me out of it, my mum had me log my daily activities in a yearly diary. It was a really cheap one from Kmart, but that’s all I needed to get started. Each double spread was a week, and each day I would write anything I had done. This ranged from washing dishes to having coffee with friends.
It started pretty sparsely, with lots of blank days and small household chores. But as the year went on, it documented the beginning of several creative projects, including Nightmare in Lego and Steampunk Guitar. It’s a nice record to have this, especially as this was the year that I applied to return to uni; this time to study something I had a deeper passion for. I’m not crediting the diaries with getting my ass into gear to apply to school, but having an ongoing record helped to see what my passions and interests were, even while my brain was telling me totally contradictory things. Having this back catalogue allowed me to make a more informed decision about my future, without relying on other peoples thoughts, or some online personality test.
The ever evolving diary
I’m on my 6th depression diary now, and over the years, the content I’ve added has changed a little. Instead of having a whole week to a spread, I now buy diaries that are one day on each page. This gives me so much more writing room for each day, which is much needed because the way I record thoughts has also changed.
Rather than focusing on the small things (although, sometimes this is necessary), my pages tend to be filled with my emotions and thoughts on the things currently happening in my life. Some entries are as short as “I went to work”, which normally indicates a harder day. It’s okay to admit that sometimes the bare minimum is all you can achieve. Others have long paragraphs about my friends or family, things that are good and things that are bad. They chronicle my adventures and nights in. Even Chester gets written about, because sometimes I really need to process my thoughts on that damn cat!
Myself in text
It’s interesting seeing my life spread across the pages of journals. It’s a place to reflect and process and a solid reminder of what I can achieve, which I struggle to remember when in the grips of a depressive episode. Depression Diaries are not the whole solution, and I have a number of strategies in place for when things take a downwards turn, but it has a few noticeable positives.
Keeping a diary can help me notice a downwards trend before a full episode. I don’t often think about my emotions as I’m experiencing them. But by writing them down, I can glance back and notice recurring themes and thoughts. Sometimes these are really happy, and it’s nice to know that everything is going okay. But sometimes I can have a few “bad” days in a row, and keeping a record of it allows me to act early and deal with the problem before it escalates.
There’s also lots of evidence to suggest that meditation and mindfulness can help support a number of different mental illnesses. I’ve always struggled to “quiet my mind” and could never seem to make these practices work for me, but writing has always been something I can do. And taking the time each day to reflect and process has really helped me to get a better grip on the world around me. It’s not a pure meditative practice, but it helps me make sense of my feelings.
Into the future
Keeping a diary wasn’t something I was good at as a kid. I had plenty of those lockable journals, and even one with invisible ink, but I never really wrote in them consistently. Sometimes I tried. And got pretty good at it, but I’d always lapse back to not writing anything. Depression Diaries have been a whole different experience, and I think it resolves down to purpose. My child brain didn’t use the diary so much as she liked the idea of keeping one. As an adult, I see the very real purpose behind it. Gone is the idea that its something private or secretive. I’m not going to publish to publish them, but they’re also not locked away. They’re a tool for my emotional stability.
After 5 years of reasonably continuous writing, I don’t see myself breaking this habit anytime soon. I’ve managed to chronicle my entire university experience, a formal diagnosis, countless hours of therapy, new relationships and the breakdown of old ones. They’ve helped me learn the signs that my health is slipping, and given me a space to process some really hard moments. I’m a data nerd and like recording and analysing things, but for anyone, a Depression Diary can be a really important tool to recovery and then ongoing support.